In his adult life, the longest that Matt Baker has been without a flock of sheep was for a period of six months in 1999. The now 43-year-old had moved down to London to start his dream job presenting Blue Peter. Settling into city life for the first time in Chiswick High Road he says now: “I couldn’t handle it!”
So strong was his connection to the countryside that he left, finding a cottage in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, with its own paddock. Within a matter of weeks he’d got some sheep which he’d attend to in the morning with Meg, his Blue Peter sheepdog, before going into the city to film.
Even when he co-presented The One Show for nine years he would travel into the studio from his 11-acre smallholding in the Chilterns, turning up covered in mud. He could be lambing one minute and interviewing an A-list celebrity the next; he infamously asked David Cameron: “How do you sleep at night?”
“Everyone would be laughing at me and then lockdown came along and everyone suddenly wanted to live like that,” he says.
A life in the country might have had a moment mid-pandemic, but it has been a constant guiding star in the presenter’s life. He grew up on a 100-acre hillside farm, 1,000ft up in the west of Co Durham, which his parents bought when he was 10 years old. They were first-time farmers: Baker’s father Michael, now 77, sold his newsagent’s shop to allow his wife Janice, now 65, to follow her dream of becoming a shepherdess.
Baker has never quite left that world behind and credits it with giving him the success he’s had.
“I’ve managed to achieve what I’ve achieved because of where I’ve grown up,” he tells me over the phone. It’s a work ethic that he believes farming life gives you. Aged 14 he would get up at 4.30am to earn money doing a milk round. He reared calves to sell, then went to school, did his gymnastics training at lunchtime (Baker was a British junior gymnastic and acrobatics champion), followed by three hours in the gym at night and then work on the farm.
“What I learnt was that recipe for hard work, and if you work hard you get a result.”
It’s also a recipe he finds hard not to follow. As we chat early on a Friday morning, Baker is speaking hands-free as he drives back into the city for a 10-hour day grading the second series of Our Farm in the Dales, the follow-up to the four-part hit on More4 which aired earlier this year to 1.8 million viewers. Already this morning he’s fed the chickens, his flock of sheep, and taken his children – Luke, 12, and Molly, 10 – to school. It’s been a “quirky” childhood lived between London TV studios and farming life.
It’s ironic given that Baker left The One Show in March last year to slow down a little and focus on his own production company, although he continues to present Countryfile. Right now he doesn’t have a minute to spare. Within days, our interview went from in-person to Zoom to a phone call, as he struggled to find time in his schedule.
Baker, one imagines, is roughly the same in any medium: warm, positive and almost unnervingly uncomplicated. Only he could make the aforementioned Cameron question seem entirely innocent.
“I’m in a really busy period of my life where I need to be organised,” he explains. “I tend to be quite disorganised – part of that is because of my dyslexia.” It means that when it comes to big life plans, he tends not to plan at all. “Honestly, if I’d had a plan at the start of my life, everything would have gone wrong,” he laughs. And of course life always has a way of throwing things up in the air.
In July last year, not long after he left The One Show, he got a call saying his mum had had a nasty accident while getting ready for sheep shearing. One of the sheep ran into her and smashed her leg. She ended up in hospital needing a knee replacement. Baker dropped everything and the whole family moved up there to sort it all out.
Well, he didn’t drop everything. It was while he was in the barn juggling a phone meeting with the commissioner from More4 that the latter asked what all the noise was. When Baker explained, the inevitable question came back, “Would you film it?”
“I’d never thought about putting my family on the telly. We talked about it and they effectively all became executive producers; anything we filmed that they didn’t like, didn’t go in.”
The result was Our Farm in the Dales, his production company’s very first commission and More4’s biggest ever show. He couldn’t be happier about the success of the show and the resurgence of all things countryside in general.
Reflecting on the early years of Countryfile, when execs were surprised by the success of the show, he says: “Everyone was saying, ‘What’s the secret?’ and I was like, ‘Well this is what my life has always been about, why does everyone find this surprising?’”
If he could never understand why issues about food and farming weren’t important to other people, then the amount of rural programming there is now is a testament to the way that is changing.
He watched and enjoyed Clarkson’s Farm, saying with his usual generosity: “It’s a fun show. It’s Clarkson being Clarkson and farming in his way, which is what people are drawn to.”
He hopes that it will also have educated people about the challenges farmers face. “It was a very true representation of the difficulty and also the standards that our British farmers have. We are the best in the world. No doubt about it; British farmers are the best in the world. And then you can understand why food prices are what they are.”
He would like to see more appreciation for the effort that goes into food production.
“A lot of people don’t grow their own food because it’s hard work. If you ask someone why they don’t grow their own carrots and potatoes it’s because it’s too much hard work. So why don’t you pay someone to do it for a fair price? There is a conversation to have about it.”
While he loves his life and broadcasting career, he would never have been able to support his family on farming alone. It’s a challenge that lots of small family farms face. “You have to diversify. Once you’re up to 1,000 acres things are slightly different, but for the small family farms it’s a real struggle.”
As well as spending last year reinventing the farm in Durham, switching to hardier breeds in more accessible fields so his parents can keep farming, he spent the time writing a book about his life so far. Preferring not to think of it as an autobiography, but as a pause for reflection on the experiences he’s had so far.
He says A Year on Our Farm was him stopping and going, “Gosh, look what happened and look where I’ve come from.”
He, his wife Nicola and their kids are back in the Chilterns now, feeling confident that they have done everything they can to future-proof the family farm for the time being.
He has no plans, of course, to go up and take it over any time soon. His might be a passionate love of the countryside, but it’s not a romantic one.
“It’s funny because people think this is an idyllic lifestyle, but it is full-on and a lot of responsibility. It’s a good lifestyle; it’s real and incredibly authentic. It’s as earthy as it comes. It’s not about wafting about in the countryside,” he says as something of a warning to those of us who might fancy ourselves as fair-weather farmers.
There are two more series of Our Farm in the Dales to come, though, as well as a Christmas special.
Compared with the first series it will be a slower-paced look at farm life, and a happier one now that his mother has recovered. “She is actually really enjoying it now. She probably would never have admitted how hard things were getting because she is a wily shepherdess, my mum,” says Baker, adding: “You can’t tell Mum what to do. So it was only ever the sheep who were going to tell her that things needed to change.”
In the meantime, Baker looks to the pace of nature to slow himself down.
“However rapid work can be, there’s nothing more grounding than actually just being in nature and balancing yourself with that. You can’t speed that up. You don’t rush Mother Nature.”
A Year on Our Farm by Matt Baker is published by Penguin on Sept 30 (£20)